Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Apr

Natural Headache Remedies

headache 1Months ago, we discussed natural alternatives to OTC pain relievers. Now, before you assume I’m some hippie snake oil peddler, mine is not a blanket, ideological opposition to pharmaceuticals; rather, it’s just that if there are more natural, cheaper, less intrusive ways to relieve pain, why not try them first?

But that last post was just about general pain relief. What about headaches? Nearly everyone gets them on occasion, and they’re seemingly common enough to warrant entire advertising campaigns revolving around their treatment. One of the natural pain relievers we previously noted was willow bark, which is chemically similar to aspirin. That’s an option for headaches. Magnesium, we said, is used to alleviate migraines, which are an especially painful form of headaches. Those are two common treatments, but surely there are other substances, methods, or solutions out there.

First, let us determine the different types of headaches and their causes.

Primary Headaches
These include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. We’ve discussed migraines extensively before, so I’ll focus on the other two.

Tension Headaches
The most common headache, tension headaches affect most people (some suggest up to 90% of adults will or do suffer from them). Most are centered around the base of the skull, the temple areas, or the forehead. The exact causes aren’t really understood, but a growing theory is that stress – physical, emotional, work-related, or otherwise – is the culprit. Tension headaches usually aren’t debilitating, but they’re certainly annoying (and ubiquitous). Fatigue and depression are also possible causes.

Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches attack in, well, clusters of two. They typically focus around the eyes, and they can persist for up to an hour and half. Once again, an exact cause hasn’t been identified, but brain scans on patients suffering from cluster headaches reveal abnormal activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating our internal clocks. Although normal headache treatments (like OTC pain relievers) are generally ineffective, abnormal sleep patterns have been fingered as a possible cause. Hmm, imbalances in internal clock brain chemistry stemming from inadequate sleep might cause health issues? Sounds familiar.

Secondary Headaches
Secondary headaches are generally more severe and alarming than primary headaches. They usually stem from a trauma, injury, or a serious systemic issue – like tumors, meningitis, high blood pressure, dehydration, even stroke (among many). These are serious, but they usually don’t affect huge numbers of people. If you’re getting headaches because of a serious medical condition, chances are you’re already aware of it.

Solutions

So what can we do about headaches?

Well, there are always OTC pain relievers – stuff like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen. These can give short-term relief, but there are definite drawbacks. Aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate the stomach and cause bleeding. People on blood thinners might want to be use caution, lest they trigger a massive bleed-out session. Acetaminophen is particularly hard on the liver, and people who drink a ton or have significant liver damage run the risk of exacerbating the situation to dangerous levels if they use acetaminophen (as if liver damage and alcohol abuse weren’t bad enough). And of course, like all medications, over-reliance on OTC pain relievers to get over headaches can lead to increased recurrence of the symptoms when you’re not taking the drugs. It’s almost like withdrawal. You’ve grown to depend on the drug for pain relief; when you don’t have the drug, the pain comes back.

As stated before, there are more natural treatments (like willow bark for normal headaches or magnesium for migraines).

Feverfew
Feverfew is an herb commonly used by headache sufferers. It acts by limiting the production of prostaglandins, the brain chemicals responsible for contracting blood vessels. The contraction and expansion of the blood vessels are thought to cause the “pounding” that typifies many headaches, and feverfew seems to reduce it. It’s natural, but – as with OTC pain relievers – suddenly discontinuing its use after habitual ingestion can lead to more headaches.

Acerola Cherry
The acerola cherry is a Latin American “super fruit.” It’s loaded with all the antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients typical of most berries, but it also contains high levels of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are thought to be anti-inflammatories similar to aspirin and ibuprofen, which are known to relieve headaches.

Massage
Easier if you have a willing partner, but head massages can be self-applied. Strong pressure at the source of pain seems to have a reducing effect. If you have a partner, have them press on either side of your head with their palms, like they’re trying to crush a melon. If the pain’s located in the temples, rub them. If it’s just sort of all over the head, palm the top of your head and massage and squeeze the scalp.

De-stress
Stress is a common – probably the most common – cause of headaches. Have a glass of red wine (but not too many, unless you want another kind of headache) and relax. Take a nap. Stress caused by lack of sleep can cause headaches (especially cluster headaches). Run a bath. Read a book. Spend quality time with your loved ones. Get some intense exercise and let those endorphins flow. Get a massage (again); it will offer double relief – physical and mental.

Prevention

Prevention is, as always, the best way to stop a headache. If you aren’t suffering yet, you’re doing something right, but it’s best to shore up your success. Avoid stress. Eat Primal foods. Avoid pro-inflammatory grains and sugars. Follow the 10 Laws of the Primal Blueprint and get plenty of sleep and leisure time. Play games. Go on hikes. Enjoy life and live well, and I think you’ll find headaches to be a thing of the past.

I’m sure there are dozens of other herbs or natural remedies out there. I’d be interested to know about them, but if you’re following the Primal Blueprint in all its facets – diet, activity, exercise, leisure, sleep, stress prevention – I think you’ll find them to be highly unnecessary.

Further Reading:

7 Steps to Beat Stress Right Now

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

Go Primal in 2009

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The last point, prevention, is huge. I used to get mind-splitting headaches when I was younger. Ever since I migrated to mostly whole foods (primal/paleo style) it is very rare for me to get a headache at all.

    Great post.

    Cheers,
    Adam

    Adam Steer - Better Is Better wrote on April 16th, 2009
  2. I agree with you there, Adam. And can we throw meditation into the de-stress category? Taking a planned 15 minute break in which you don’t worry about the 287 things taking up your day that are causing the headache in the first place!

    Nicole wrote on April 16th, 2009
  3. Mark,

    You forgot to mention all of the evidence for the use of appropriate physical therapy in the treatment of what you note as “tension headaches.” I would be happy to share the peer viewed research with you! Drop me a line and I will get you the info.

    Jim Glinn, PT, DPT, OCS

    Jim Glinn wrote on April 16th, 2009
  4. I’m very fortunate that i do NOT get headaches. All my life i’ve been highly active with sports, till this day i still exercise, eat right, get my hours sleep i need and i just don’t have them!

    Donna wrote on April 16th, 2009
  5. i think it’s amazing how much massages can help get rid of headaches. coming from a constant headache and migraine sufferer, i appreciate this list and the link back to the migraine page.

    Holly wrote on April 16th, 2009
  6. I’ve NEVER had headache in my life!
    Hope it never finds me ;)

    riceball wrote on April 16th, 2009
  7. I’m a big fan of high quality, theraputic -grade essential oils, and use them when I get headaches (I live in NYC, and work in sales- the occasional headache is inevitable for me).I will dab a blend of blue tansy/ romam chamomile and/ or peppermint on accupressure spots behind my ears when headaches happen. That seems to help mitigate them quickly. And weekly accupuncture helped my migraines-they have totally ceased.

    Marci wrote on April 16th, 2009
  8. Peppermint. For many people smelling peppermint really helps a headache. Dab a little peppermint oil on a tissue or cottonball. Or, even better if you have a sinus or allergy related headache, make a cup of hot peppermint tea and breathe in the minty steam from the cup.

    It’s an old herbal remedy, but it really does work.

    Kara wrote on April 16th, 2009
  9. Since going primal I rarely have headaches and I was a sufferer of several times per week so that’s such a nice relief for me. I still will get them if I stay up past midnight I’m guaranteed to wake with a terrible headache.

    Michelle wrote on April 16th, 2009
  10. You have some great suggestions for relieving headaches. One very different method which I find works very well is to press on the LI4 acupressure point which is at the base of the web-like skin between the thumb and the forefinger (or index finger). Press firmly by using the same fingers of the opposite hand but don’t pinch the skin – press deep into that ‘V’ area, angling toward the thumb. This is very good for tension headaches and you will find that one of your 2 hands is extremely tender or sore in that spot – that is the one to work on.

    Hillary wrote on April 16th, 2009
  11. Caffeine works too. I very, very rarely get headaches, but any I’ve had over the past few years have been easily cured with a cup of coffee. Admittedly, this is probably not a good solution for those headaches caused by stress, as you pay for the capillary dilation with elevated cortisone.

    Andy Fossett wrote on April 16th, 2009
  12. Yup, a lot lot of folks get chronic headaches and migraines from a food allergy. Dairy products, and sometimes the grains are a direct line to the headache city. Remove the offending food, go on a primal diet, and the issue resolves.

    Magnesium is great for some headaches, I have also found that a HOT HOT foot bath with a cool cloth on the forehead is a very good treatment for Throbbing, full vascular headaches.

    There are a lot of herbs much better than feverfew for headaches, but again it really depends on the type of headache for sure. I use fresh clematis tincture and/or black cohosh ( NOT just an herb for women) often for vascular or tension headaches. My sweetie, a guy, swears by the black cohosh for his headaches.

    darcey blue wrote on April 16th, 2009
  13. Try a Neti Pot for sinus headaches and general cleaning. I used one today for the first time and it got rid of my sore throat of all things along with the buildup in my head.

    Don’t psyche yourself out when using one though – it does feel weird. My fiance tried it and was so nervous he ended up throwing up all his dinner in the sink.

    Rachel wrote on April 16th, 2009
  14. i’ve not gotten a headache since I started seeing a “nucca” chiropractor (they deal only with the cervical spine). My “atlas” vertebrae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_(anatomy) – w/f/s) was knocked back and to the right. The chiro is working on getting it straight again.

    Another guy I spoke to has had the same experience. These are anecdotal stories, but if your insurance covers the procedure, might be worth tracking one down.

    greg g wrote on April 17th, 2009
  15. One more testimonial for magnesium as a headache remedy: my son (11) was having migraines, usually mild but almost a daily occurrence and occasionally severe, and after months of logging food intake, weather, activity, and all kinds of common triggers, we were just about to start trying drug therapy (because, although mild, they were reaching the point of interfering with his school work) when I read that (1) magnesium deficiency is extremely common and (2) it’s a potential migraine trigger. I’ve added a daily magnesium supplement to his routine, and the headaches stopped within 3 or 4 days. It’s been 4 months now, and he’s had one mild headache that responded to ibuprofen in all that time. We’re thrilled!

    Sara wrote on April 17th, 2009
  16. I get a lot of tension headaches, to the point where I can tell what area is triggering the headache. It’s often the spot where my neck & shoulder meet (BIG knots in there) or the base of my skull. Generally speaking, rubbing these areas with a lot of pressure gets rid of the headache.

    If it’s really bad, like the pain is extending all the way down my neck & under my shoulder blades, I’ll lay on the bed with my head just barely off the side. I slowly inch down, letting my head fall further off. I hold the position until any tension there goes away, the move further down, basically until my whole upper body is hanging off the bed. This seems to stretch the muscles out enough that my headache is at least reduced, if not gone.

    Acupuncture is awesome, but there’s no one in my area who does it. =*(

    Heather wrote on April 17th, 2009
  17. Several years ago I found the solution to my migraine headaches. Other symptoms included: chronic fatigue, nausea, mood swings, and a neck rash! The solution? Dump the MSG and similar hidden ingredients (too many to list)! Thank you, thank you, thank you to http://www.truthinlabeling.org! They are life savers.

    Ken wrote on April 22nd, 2009
  18. Dr. Darvish, ND, recommends a grapefruit. Check her blog on headaches at http://www.truthbehindyourpain.com. Many headaches come from lack of a liver enzyme.

    Lisa wrote on May 22nd, 2009
  19. Thank you for this article, really helpful! I have only recently started getting headaches. They started as soon as i moved back to the States so i figure it may be linked with the pollution levels here. It has been hard for me to deal with the head pain because my stomach is too sensitive for many OTC pain relievers and because the pain radiates through my jaw which makes eating a not-so-fun experience. Hopefully these natural options will work more in my favor!

    Rachel wrote on July 6th, 2011
  20. I do accept as true with all of the ideas you have introduced in your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very quick for newbies. Could you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

    blood pressure close together means? wrote on November 12th, 2011
  21. Oh I didn’t really help sorry

    Frankie wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  22. Headache Sufferer for as long as I can remember. 400mg of Magnesium and Riboflavin seem to do the trick, although expensive. 5 months ago I switch to HeadacheFree Vitamins, working amazing so far.. Knock on wood.

    Brandon wrote on July 26th, 2012
  23. Please can you suggest natural remedy for headaches and nausea, i get from 10 to 17 a month, have tried everything, they usually wake me up in the small hrs and last all day or even 2. Had them for 9 yrs and am fed up with life

    Rachel wrote on November 7th, 2012
    • Rachel-

      This isn’t very timely and I hope your headaches have resolved since you posted but it sounds a lot like cluster headaches. The physiology of a cluster headache is very different from a tension headache or a migraine. The nighttime waking is the reason they are often called “alarm clock headaches”. You will usually feel the pain most intensely behind an eye or on one side of the head. It will rarely change sides. Most people do not respond to pain killers, even narcotics, although the pain is intense. Since CH (cluster headache) is so disruptive and painful, you’ll find that those who have it have tried everything to get rid of them (diet, massage, exercise, drugs). Migraine triggers like cheese, chocolate, red wine, sulfate, nitrates, MSG, etc. do not usually trigger a cluster. Alcohol, however, is a major trigger for most people.

      This article is the first on this blog that I have disapproved of- the actual science and research is missing in this topic where they are . Cluster headaches should not be lumped with tension headaches as they are much more painful and intense than migraines. The treatments are different as well. CH are believed to be caused by irregularities in the hypothalamus but waving it off as inadequate sleep is dismissive. The good news is that instead of major drugs, most CH (80% or more) sufferers are helped with oxygen or a regimen of supplements that have been pieced together with science and self-experimentation- much like the research on this site has pieced together better nutrition. The supplements include: melatonin (I know it is controversial as it is a hormone, but the science is that those with CH have low melatonin production without supplementation), Magnesium-Calcium-Vitamin D (very large doses of D seem to help!), Omega 3′s, some smaller vitamins to support Vitamin D processing.

      I was able to go from 12-ish days a month of serious pain (3-day headaches, about one cluster a week) to a headache 2-3 time a year by watching my vitamins and taking melatonin. I always thought I was getting adequate sleep and nutrition previously, but the supplements have made all the difference. The one I have today is because I had 1 (and only 1) drink 2 days ago and am stuck until tomorrow with the pain. My own fault though.

      Try clusterheadaches.com for much more detailed information – I hope it helps!

      Crystal wrote on July 15th, 2013
  24. I hate aspirin when I have a headache. Instead of taking a aspirin, I prefer to get some sleep.

    Rehan wrote on November 30th, 2013
  25. i get long term headache since last 4 years.sometime i get relief from this but not as permanent way.Now i get more frustration n sometime cant sleep due to loosing confidence and became more weak.whats the solution of the problems please help me.

    Jeevan Thapa wrote on February 11th, 2014

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